There’s a new Ghostbusters trailer, but let’s first talk about Spy, last summer’s James Bond spoof starring Melissa McCarthy as a tech-support-specialist-turned-field-agent. It was director Paul Feig’s third time teaming with McCarthy, following up 2011’s Bridesmaids and 2013’s The Heat, and he’s made it 4 for 4 by re-teaming with her on Ghostbusters. She’s joined by old Bridesmaids co-star Kristin Wiig and SNL favorites Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. The Heat‘s screenwriter Katie Dippold came along for the ride as did pretty much the entire behind the scenes crew from Spy.
If Feig is a director whose films keep escalating in scale, Ghostbusters represents the zenith of that arc. Spy was his first real big action movie, and Ghostbusters will be his first time dealing with CGI ghosts. However, Ghostbusters will also have plenty of action sequences, and it seems fair to look back at Spy and ask if it’s even a good action movie.
We think of Spy as a feminist spoof of the spy genre, but Feig’s first goal was to make a good spy movie, as he told RoberEbert.com, “I don’t look at it as a spoof at all—I just wanted to make a funny spy movie that would have a real story, real stakes and real danger and then put in characters that are operating at extreme levels. It is the comedy of miscommunication and finding how to make it funny without subverting the stakes and the danger.”
Feig made Spy because nobody was going to hire him to make a James Bond movie even though he really wanted to. Even after The Heat, there was nothing in his work which suggested he’d know how to handle a large-scale action movie. Similar to Judd Apatow and (pre-Big Short) Adam McKay, his directing style mostly consisted of pointing the camera at funny people and letting them riff endless one-liners which could later be edited down in post. That’s a style which favors looseness and static camerawork. An action movies requires advanced planning and precise camera movements.
The compromise Feig reached was to stick with his familiar riff-Olympics approach to dialogue scenes, and lean heavily on his crew to pre-plan the action scenes. For example, “With the knife fight in the kitchen, my stunt coordinators, J.J. Perry and Walter Garcia, got together to pre-viz everything with their stunt team and they filmed their version of what it should be and brought it back to me so that I could add gags to build on it to find the funniest, scariest, most action-packed thing that we could do. That was kind of my favorite part of doing this film–getting to really delve deep into that in order to figure out how to do funny action.”
That should mean he’s now perfect suited for Ghostbusters. Theoretically, Spy was the perfect learning experience in how to pull off funny action. Now he can do that again, and the visual effects crew will hold his hand through all of the CGI.
The problem, though, is that the new Ghostbusters trailer doesn’t appear to promise a whole lot of hilarity or great action moments. It has the look of a perfectly adequate comedy with familiar Ghostbusters elements like Ecto-1 and Slimer, who oddly is not the one who slimes Kristin Wiig in the opening minute.
We, of course, meet the new crew. Wiig is the brains. McKinnon is the oddball engineering genius. McCarthy (playing things more reserved) is the sweet-natured, entrepreneurial-minded enthusiast bringing them all together. Jones more or less forces her way onto the team after encountering an empty subway tunnel full of ghosts while working her blue collar job.
The villain (rumored to be played by Neil Casey) is MIA, but we do learn that there’s a device which is directly responsible for the massive of scale of supernatural activity threatening potential ruin upon New York City. The button of the trailer reveals these new ghosts will be able to possess humans, thus turning both McCarthy and Chris Hemsowrth’s male secretary character into temporary villains.
At this point with Ghostbucters, hopefully we’ve moved on from the arguments about nostalgia, gender equality and even taxonomy. Hopefully we can just judge it based on whether or not it tells a good story and offer up some clever jokes.
However,the jokes in the trailer all felt flat to me. To be fair, I picture my young niece and nephew loving the moments when the girls are slimed and when McKinnon poses with the big hat and wig. The gag with McCarthy twisting her head around while possessed ala the Exorcist could also be an broad audience pleaser, but I was left wondering how she actually survived her neck-breaking twist once the ghost leaves her body. Beyond nitpicking, that Exorcist moment was also a far more specific reference than I was expecting, more so than was common in the original Ghostbusters movies.
The Frighteners-esque ghosts do provide an interesting visual flair, and there are several appealing splash page moments (like the scene of them in a Times Square overrun by ghosts). However, I keep coming back to what Charlie Janes Anders of io9 said of Spy:
Everything in the world of Spy (with the exception of Jason Statham’s bonkers character) feels borrowed wholesale from elsewhere, even as the movie rushes through a series of plot twists that feel half-assed but also consume way too much of the movie’s focus.
It’s like, if something is classified as a genre comedy, we have to make it a spoof—and a spoof can’t be clever or character-driven, it can only plod through all of the rote elements of whatever it’s spoofing. There’s a moment halfway through Spy where McCarthy stops being a meek doormat and starts being sassy and taking control of her situation—and it feels refreshing, because we’re sick of her being a doormat, and also natural, because she’s acting assertive in the way we’ve seen McCarthy act in several other movies, but it does not feel earned, because it comes out of nothing that’s happened in the movie up to that point. Spy doesn’t really care about building out McCarthy’s character, because it’s so focused on plot devices and the trappings of the genre it’s poking fun at. This makes me worry about the new Ghostbusters, which is another genre spoof being directed by Paul Feig.
I’m inclined to agree, even as someone who enjoyed Spy, and I fear that her worries about what this meant for Ghostbusters might have been prescient.
On the opposite end, Blake Goble of ConsequencesOfSound had a more optimistic reading of Spy:
Spy spoke incredibly well to Feig’s potential as a director capable of handling a number of things on screen. Spy is a deft and daffy surprise. While the marketing made it out to be a cheap, pratfall comedy where a crass McCarthy takes dives across Europe while barking at baddies, it had more going for it than that. It showed depth, maturity, and a level of panache and flair both Feig and McCarthy had yet to show. Spy shows Feig getting better at his craft. It shows a Feig with actual filmmaking in him, in spite of his reliance on improv.
As an action comedy, it feels like a film that could translate incredibly well into the Ghostbusters mold. A little goofy, rooted in familiar tropes, and infinitely appealing, Spy is the best of the model that Ghostbusters more or less set up: the mass-appeal genre hybrid.
It’s obviously too early to rush to any conclusions about Ghostbusters. At the moment, I’m leaning more toward Anders than Goble for how Feig’s work on Spy applies to all of this. The difference is that despite its narrative or action flaws I thought Spy was still remarkably funny. I’m not seeing that from Ghostbusters yet.
Ghostbusters comes out July 22, 2016. What did you think of the trailer?